Spring Breakers (2013)

Harmony Korine was reportedly only 19 years old when he wrote the script for a teenage drama about sexually promiscuous, drugs and alcohol abusing and HIV-positive adolescents in New York City, known as Kids. Film, otherwise directed by Larry Clark, created a considerable amount of controversy at the time, but has since became a cult classic. It also kick-started Korine’s career, who soon became recognizable as one of the weirdest, most bizarre and disturbing American writers/directors. His next film Gummo was set in Xenia, Ohio, a town devastated by a tornado, with a teenage glue-sniffing protagonist who kills cats in his spare time and sells them to a local restaurant supplier. It’s safe to say that there’s hardly any other film-maker who would manage to write a screenplay so horrifying and fascinating at the same time, but even though most of his work got nothing but praise from film critics and fellow film-makers (such as Gus van Sant and Werner Herzog), his films never managed to reach mainstream audience. Until now. Spring Breakers was proclaimed a cult classic almost the second it hit the theatres – it was also Korine’s first film that actually made some money (it grossed $31 million worldwide which is more than all of his previous films together). The main reason for that was the cast: ex-Disney princesses like Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez, Pretty Little Liars star Ashley Benson and Korine’s wife Rachel Korine were the ones that drove people to the cinema. However, people who went into theatres clueless about who Harmony Korine was, knowing only the previous work of mentioned girls, were probably in for a shocking surprise.

Film history has quite possibly never seen a more drastic makeover than that of Vanessa Hudgens. With Spring Breakers she turned from a High School Musical Disney princess to a cold-blooded, sociopathic college girl who is willingly breaking the law and crossing all social rules imaginable in pursuit of the American Dream (that quite soon turns into American Nightmare). Barely legal, innocent-looking teen queens snorting cocaine, shooting automatic guns, robbing local restaurants and slowly getting more and more corrupt while all through the film wearing nothing more than neon-colored bikinis… A satire about the distorted American values could hardly get any better than that . Another plus in casting is almost unrecognisable James Franco as Alien, who bails the girls out of jail and pulls them even further into the world of crime and danger.

The annual spring break is the embodiment of American youth’s distorted and hedonistic values and the first few minutes of the film actually look like some MTV show that glamorised spring break all those years ago. Film opens with a beach party full of half-naked, beer-soaked girls dancing in the pool with agressive Skrillex’s dubstep playing in the background. It then flashes back to the college attended by four friends that dream of going to Florida. And since none of them has enough money for a trip to Partyland, three of them decide to rob a Chicken Shack with ski masks, water pistols and hammers. After the robbery they can finally board the bus and head to Florida where days and nights merge into one long party full of alcohol, drugs and random sexual encounters. However, they soon get arrested for possession and after spending a night in jail, they get bailed out by a drug and arms dealer/rapper Alien who invites the girls into his world of drugs, guns, golden teeth and amorality. But what is even more compelling than the quasi-transformation of the girls after their encounter with a white gangsta rapper is that they’re far from being helpless victims that got caught up with the wrong people – they’re very much willing participants in all the illegal activities. They are amoral from the beginning; Alien just helps them to fully embrace this new way of living where you take for yourself whatever and however you want, no matter the consequences.

Selena Gomez is playing Faith, a religious and God fearing teen that is conflicted by what is happening around her. She is the only one that doesn’t participate in the robbery of the Chicken Shack and after the other three are reliving the robbery one night, showing her how they did it, she finally realizes who she’s friends with, seeing them for what they really are for the first time. But it’s not until meeting Alien that she starts to doubt her being in Florida is really such a great idea, which leads to her leaving the never-ending party, returning back to the reality.

After Faith’s departure, the girls move in with Alien, a self-made man who’s living some kind of deranged and corrupted American Dream. But even though he is a drug dealer and a gangster that’s seducing the girls with his guns and money, he is hardly the bad guy here for it isn’t long before the girls start to manipulate him, pushing him further towards his self-destruction.

One of the most memorable scenes in this film is without a doubt the one where Franco starts playing Britney Spears’ »Everytime« on a piano – and when Britney’s real song takes over, the scene suddenly turns into a crime spree, with Alien and the girls, (who are wearing nothing but their bikinis, pink ski masks and automatic guns) crashing parties and robbing people. Is it supposed to be a coincidence that »Everything«, a song of a former Disney girl and pop queen who at one point »broke bad«, is playing during the robbery of teen queens (played by former Disney princesses) currently on a breaking bad mission? I don’t think so. I’ve never seen such a messed up, violent and disturbing scene that would look more poetic.

Benoît Debie’s cinematography is intensely bright and luminous and the use of unnatural neon lights makes the whole film feel completely unreal and hypnotic –  which is perfect for a film that tries to strengthen the sense of a fantasy world that Alien and the girls build for themselves. Overall, this is a film about distorted American values and about the hedonistic hell that for some reason seems like paradise to so many young people.

The Basics:
Directed by: Harmony Korine
Written by: Harmony Korine
Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, Selena Gomez, James Franco
Running Time: 94 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 7.5

Her (2013)

Her is Spike Jonze’s fourth feature film and the first film where he wrote the screenplay entirely by himself. But even though this is considered to be one of the best films of 2013 (that brought Jonze nothing but praise and won him the Academy Award and a Golden Globe for Best Screenplay), I can’t really share any enthusiasm about it. I think that, while visually stunning, greatly directed and wonderfully acted (with always brilliant Joaquin Phoenix), the screenplay was weak and – in some aspects – a bit problematic.

The story is set in a pastel-coloured dystopian future, where almost all human connections are replaced with technology. The city, even though highly populated, seems empty and cold and people, who seem introverted and lonely, spend most of their time talking to their computer programs instead to each other. One of those lonely people is soon-to-be-divorced Theodore Twombly (Phoenix) who purchases a talking operating system with artificial intelligence that is designed to adapt and evolve. Within seconds Twombly’s OS knows his likes, dislikes, Mommy issues and insecurities. But he’s desperate to have someone in his life, which is why Samantha (that’s how OS names itself after he decides he wants it to have a female voice) soon begins to control him; she controls every bit of his hard drive, she even watches him sleep. But Twombly doesn’t mind this invasion of privacy – instead he falls in love. When they start having cyber sex, Twombly moans: »I’m inside you«. But in reality, it is Samantha who is inside of him, recording his every move, his every thought as data for her own development. Since Her was released almost the same time that Snowden leaked informations about NSA collecting our data, it amazes me that more people didn’t drew any comparisons between the two – instead, most people viewed this film as one of the most romantic films of 2013.

This is not the first time in film history where a man tried to replace his human relationships with a machine – just remember the 1975 cult film The Stepford Wives where women were turned into perfect and submissive housewives/robots who were only concerned about how to satisfy their husband’s needs and had no intellectual interests of their own. It’s also kind of an unwritten rule that this »female machines« have to be extremely good looking. Samantha Morton was the one who originally gave voice to the OS, but was later replaced with Scarlett Johansson. Even in a film where female is an actual object (and not just an objectified subject, as is usually the case) and doesn’t have a body, she still needs to be sexy and good looking for viewer’s imagination – and who’s voice is more sexy and easily recognized than the one from Scarlett Johansson?

This film had a great potential and could go in many other directions – but Jonze decided to write a movie about a narcissistic, emotionally immature guy who isn’t capable to deal with any real emotions – and an OS is actually a perfect girlfriend for a guy like that, considering it’s always in a good mood, smart, funny, without any ups and downs – just trying to satisfy his every need.

However, there is one scene that stands out from all the rest – it’s when Twombly meets with his ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara). It is her character that brings some realness to the table. When Twombly tells her that he’s been seeing someone for the last few months and how »it’s good to be with somebody that’s excited about life« (which means with somebody without any existential problems or doubts and insecurities about oneself) and when the waiter walks to the table, interrupting them by asking how they’re doing, she responds with: »We’re doing fine. We used to be married but he couldn’t handle me. He wanted to put me on Prozac and now he’s in love with his laptop.« And this is it: this is what this film is all about. It’s about a man who couldn’t handle a woman with an existential crisis that probably ended in depression. It’s so much easier to fall in love with a computer that is designed exactly for you – whose job it is to satisfy your every need and desire – and without expecting anything in return.

Breathtaking cinematography is the work of Hoyte Van Hoytema, best known for his work on Swedish masterpiece Let the Right One In and on British thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. The pastel colouring of the surroundings, as well as the people’s clothes, brilliantly emphasize the melancholy feeling of Twombly, or rather of the entire city. This is Jonze’s best directed film to date and all the performances are nothing short of perfect. There’s no doubt that this film is visually stunning and in every way nearly perfect – but the story lacked any real depth and it was impossible to connect to it.

The Basics:
Directed by: Spike Jonze
Written by: Spike Jonze
Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt
Running Time: 126 minutes
Year: 2013
Rating: 6

Wadjda (2012)

Wadjda is the first film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, but even more importantly – it’s the first Saudi film made by a female director. And even though Haifaa al-Mansour had to be in a van for the larger part of film’s production when directing on the streets of Riyadh due to strict gender segregation and had to use walkie-talkies to communicate with the rest of the film crew, it is still an incredibly important achievement for a woman to be allowed to direct a film in this male dominated society.

Haifaa al-Mansour was born in Saudi Arabia, but hasn’t lived there since she left to attend the University – first to study comparative literature in Cairo and latter to attend film school in Sydney, Australia. It took her five years to find financial backing and getting permission to film Wadjda – a story supposedly inspired by her niece and her own childhood memories, although one could argue that the main theme of the film strongly resembles Iranian cinematic tradition, where stories about children are frequently used for subtle critiques of their society.

As we follow 11 years old Wadjda through her life we’re slowly introduced to a very straightforward criticism of the subordinate position of women in a country where everyday life is still very much dictated by religion. On many occasions we can see how much power the society has over the individuals – one of the stronger examples is probably the narrative shift when Wadjda’s dad (who is clearly very much in love with his first wife), submits to his parents wishes and marries another woman. Another similar event is when the (unmarried) school headmistress accuses her lover of breaking into her home and attacking her, so that she can avoid being publicly disgraced and discredited. And then there are those little details, that nonetheless tell us a great deal about Saudi society: how the schoolgirls must hide from the playground when construction men are working on a roof nearby and how Wadjda’s mother must have a driver because women are not allowed to drive a car. Any means of transport is actually prohibited for a woman to drive, including a bike, for they believe it causes infertility. But Wadjda doesn’t care about these rules – she’s determined to get a green bike from a local shop, even if it means that she must participate in a Quran recital competition to win a cash prize that would allow her to pay for the bike.

Even though the film includes women of many different generations, it is mainly focused on Wadjda who is still considered a child and doesn’t have a status of a woman yet. This is the only reason that she can get away with her rebelling against gender roles. She comes to the school without hijab, she wears black Converse shoes, walks around with cassette player in her backpack and listens to »Western« rock music – all of which infuriates the headmistress, who at one point even threatens her with expulsion. The character of headmistress is thus particularly interesting, because it is she, and not the men, who seems the most strict and fundamentalist in her religious beliefs – indicating that women are often not mere victims of the suffocating patriarchy, but can just as well perpetrate the system that is keeping them in the oppressed position.

As a young girl Wadjda can afford to be headstrong. But one can’t help but wonder what will happen to her in a couple of years when society starts to perceive her as a grown woman? The story also introduces us to her friendship with a boy named Abdullah who accepts her for who she is. But when he tells her that he means to marry her when they grow up it is hard not to wonder what will happen with their relationship when she’ll become his wife – will they still be equal, riding their bikes together or will he, as a man, gain power over her, a woman? Film doesn’t give any answers to the questions it raises, but it suggests (with the end scene, when Wadjda finally goes for a ride with her new bike – a scene that wonderfully resembles the ending of Truffaut’s French New Wave classic, The 400 Blows) that this is the time of a new generation that will quite possibly be able to overcome gender differences. Although we can also interpret it in a more pessimistic way, with her riding on a bike representing one of her last moments of freedom.

This is a wonderful coming-of-age story set in a country that we know almost nothing of. It is a great introduction to the Saudi culture (as well as to the Islamic culture in general) and thus a must-see film for all generations comfortably (and all too often ignorantly) living in their Eurocentric, Western bubble. In an age where fear of the unknown culture is yet again bringing up intolerance and hate all over Europe, films like this are the best kind of weapon to crush the stereotypes, to make us understand a different reality at least a bit better and to turn intolerance into something more positive: acceptance and permission to assimilate.

The Basics:
Directed by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Written by: Haifaa Al-Mansour
Starring: Waad Mohammed, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Reem Abdullah, Sultan Al Assaf, Ahd
Running Time: 98 minutes
Year: 2012
Rating: 8

Easy Rider (1969)

Easy Rider, a film that helped to start the New Hollywood phase during the late 60’s and early 70’s (along with films such as The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde) is a road movie about two bikers from Los Angeles, who travel through American South. Easy Rider explores the issues and tensions in the United States during the 60’s, such as experimentation with psychoactive drugs (it’s also known for real drug use during filming, especially LSD and marijuana), communal as well as nomadic lifestyle and so on. It is a film about the search for freedom, leaving behind predominant values and contructing new ones, it is about the conflict between what could be called old America and it’s conservatism and new America; progressive, liberal, young.The film is presented in a linear narrative, and we don’t have any insight into Billy’s and Wyatt’s life before they went on the road. We know almost nothing about their personal life, except that they’re originally from L.A. But their past is not important. We can even say that it’s not really a story about them, but more about the whole generation that rejected the conservative values and lifestyles of their parents in the late sixties. As Seitz (2010) already pointed out in his essay for Criterion:

“Easy Rider had a big impact on pop culture and it became a surprise hit because it showed young viewers a life they knew quite well but that hadn’t yet been accurately captured on film: the language, the sex, the drugs, the clothes, the music. But Easy Rider also transcends its cultural moment, because it’s about more than bikers and hippies or the tension between libertines and reactionaries. It’s about the difficulty of escaping social conditioning and economic imperatives and sustaining a truly free life. Our heroes spend so many nights outdoors not because they love looking at the stars but because even low-rent motels won’t take guys who look like them.”

Billy and Wyatt don’t openly reject society in terms of political thought; they just want to live how they want to, without time-limitations and restrictions (the moment when Wyatt throws away his watch symbolizes their freedom; they are not limited by society in any way, even time stops existing). They don’t really care about global problems and they don’t hold on to some great ideology. Their raison d’etre is freedom conceived as a life without restraints and full of pleasure in the form of excessive drug use, sexual promiscuity and so on.

After being arrested for “parading without a permit” while jokingly riding along with a parade in a small town, they’re thrown in jail, where they befriend a lawyer and local drunk, George Hanson (which was the role, that made Jack Nicholson the star and rised him to one of the best actors of his generation). He helps them get out of the jail and decides to travel with them to New Orleans.

One of the strongest scenes in the film is when Billy and Hanson talk by the fire, trying to figure out, what happened to their country, what happened to America (which is one of the main topics in the film, as we can see on the original film poster: A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere…). Billy tells Hanson that they can’t even get into a second-rate motel, because they’re scared of their wild looks. But while Billy thinks that all he and Wyatt represent to these people is someone, who needs a haircut, Hanson has a different view on why people are scared of the two long-haired bikers – and this is because they represent freedom. When Billy still doesn’t undertand, what’s wrong with freedom, because freedom is »what it’s all about«, Hanson explains: “That’s what’s it’s all about, all right. But talkin’ about it and bein’ it, that’s two different things. I mean, it’s real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Of course, don’t ever tell anybody that they’re not free, ’cause then they’re gonna get real busy killin’ and maimin’ to prove to you that they are. Oh, yeah, they’re gonna talk to you, and talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom. But they see a free individual, it’s gonna scare ’em.”

Billy’s and Wyatt’s appearances challange prevailing notions of manhood – the bikers are routinely harrassed for their long hair and eccentric clothes, and mocked as girls or queers. This is especially seen when they walk into the diner with some local people and the town Sheriff already in it. They walk out before getting anything to eat, because of the way people make fun of them. They openly call them girls (»I think she’s cute, we’ll put him in a woman’s cell«) and queers, and even compare them to the animals from the zoo (»They look like a bunch of refugees from a gorilla love-in.«) Even the Sheriff thinks of their looks as provocative; when they come in, his reaction is: »What the hell is this? Troublemakers?« and his friend responds with: »You name it, I’ll throw rocks at it.« The comments become more insulting with every minute, and they decide to split.

Billy’s and Wyatt’s pursue for freedom ends in death when their wild lifestyle and unconventional looks disturbe some narrow-minded local people, who can’t except long-haired bikers travelling on the road and they shoot them to death, while they’re riding towards Florida, minding their own business.

The Basics:
Directed by: Dennis Hopper
Written by: Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Terry Southern
Starring: Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson
Running Time: 95 minutes
Year: 1969
Rating: 8

List of references:

Seitz, Matt Zoller. 2010. Easy Rider: Wild at Heart. Available at: http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/1667-easy-rider-wild-at-heart

Into the Wild (2007)

Into the Wild, a film directed by Sean Penn, is based on a true story that happened in the early 90’s. The main character, Christopher McCandless is a post-modern individual, who decides to leave his life behind and goes searching for freedom and meaning beyond materialistic world. During his time on the road he’s trying to find his purpose in life, but more importantly – he’s trying to realize how to live and be happy in a world full of possibilities, which are suffocating him on various levels, instead of being liberating.

The film is presented in a non-linear narrative, jumping back and forth between McCandless’s time spent in Alaskan wilderness and his two-year travels that were leading to his journey to Alaska. Through the film we hear his sister as a narrator. Especially when we see flashbacks into their childhood, we can hear his sister’s voice-over. She’s leading us through their lives, so we can get to know their situation at home, their mother and father, and we can also get to know Chris – we can get a better picture of what he’s thinking and why he’s leaving his (on the first sight) perfect family and life behind to go live in the wilderness.

Film begins with his arrival in Alaska, where he sets up a campsite in an abandoned bus (which he calls The Magic Bus). He’s content with the isolation, the beauty of nature around him, and the thrill of living off the land. »No longer to be poisoned by civilization, he flees, and walks alone upon the land to become lost in the wild

Film narrative then jumps back for two years, to the time when Christopher graduated from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. We witness his graduation, and their family dinner afterwards, where they’re trying to celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime event. But the family seems to not get along. While his parents seem concern with their image in front of their friends and neighbours, Chris on the other hand, doesn’t seem to share their materialistic nature and doesn’t want anything that he doesn’t necessarily need. So when they tell him that they want to buy him a new car as a gift for his graduation, his reaction is pretty unusual (at least for an average twenty-two year old): »Why would I want a new car? This one runs great. Do you think I want some fancy boat? Are your worried what the neighbours might think? I don’t need a new car. I don’t want a new car. I don’t want anyTHING. These things, things, things, things…«.
This is the first sign that he’s unhappy in a society that gives so much importance and meaning to consumerism; where people measure their happiness, their success with things that they can buy, with things that they possess. It’s pretty clear that he resents his parents for their materialistic nature, and also that they don’t really know their son, that they have no idea what he wants and needs, of the way he thinks.

Shortly afterwards, Chris rejects his conventional life by destroying all of his credit cards and identification documents. He donates nearly all of his savings to Oxfam and sets out on a cross-country drive in his car to experience life in the wilderness.

While on the road, he gets to know various people. Although most people find him strange, they also relate with him, each of them in a different way. What’s interesting about Chris is how he responds to people’s questions about his life choices with quotes from the books (for example: »Rather than love, than money, than faith, than fame, than fairness, give me truth.«). These quotes tell us a great deal about him. During the film we get to know that shortly after finishing high school, Chris found out that their dad was married before and that they have a half-brother from his previous marriage. »Their fraudulent marriage and our father’s denial of this other son was, for Chris, a murder of every day’s truth. He felt his whole life turn, like a river suddenly reversing the direction of its flow, suddenly running uphill. These revelations struck at the core of Chris’s sense of identity. They made his entire childhood seem like fiction.« With this knowledge, we can suddenly understand the quote above. It also becomes clear that, even though his escape from the society was in many ways inspirational, his main reason was in fact very individualistic. His reason was not so much running away from corrupted society as it was running away from his family that hurt him with lies and shattered his whole life, his identity.

His pursuit of freedom ends tragically, shortly after he finally reaches Alaska. But even though he tried to exclude himself from society, he realizes, shortly after arriving to Alaska, the importance of human contact, manifested in one of the most powerful phrases of the entire movie: happiness is real only when shared. Film thus ends with a message that complete freedom and individualism is not a way to live and that people still need society to be happy. But by the time he decides to return back home, it’s already too late – he is forced to die alone in the middle of Alaskan wilderness that was once his paradise and at the end his prison.

Directed by: Sean Penn
Written by: Sean Penn (based on the book by Jon Krakauer)
Starring: Emile Hirsch, Jena Malone, Catherine Keener, Brian H. Dieker, Vince Vaughn, Kristen Stewart, Hal Holbrook
Running Time: 148 minutes
Year: 2007
Rating: 8